How the Usually Dry Annual Report Has Become Brands' Secret Marketing Weapon

Cutting-Edge Delivery of Facts and Figures Makes Consumers Take Notice

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Design judges at the 2012 Cannes International Festival of Creativity had a "Cocoon" moment. They ran in and out of the jury room with the glee of 5-year-olds, having just gotten their hands on a magical piece of work from Serviceplan, Munich. On the surface, it was a completely blank white book. But all came to light -- literally -- when the book was exposed to the sun and its rays interacted with specially treated paper to reveal the content within.

Recalled Jury President Bruce Duckworth, principal of Turner Duckworth: "One person went out into the sunshine, came back in and said, "You've got to see this, it's amazing!' And then to watch the reaction of all the other jurors as they came back, it actually made the hairs on the backs of your arms and necks stand up. It made us feel like children again."

The book turned out to be an annual report, of all things, for solar-energy company Austria Solar. While it could have come across as gimmicky, it was a solid concept that conveyed the company's mission in a single, startling moment. The report earned accolades across the awards circuit (including overall most-awarded design campaign in 2012, according to Creativity's Annual Awards Report). Today, it continues to create buzz for the client and this month was named a contender for The Design Museum's Design of the Year.

But most importantly, it opened industry eyes to how a fresh take on a typically mediocre category can garner attention for a brand.

Austria Solar isn't alone in its innovation. Croatian agency Bruketa & Zinic has built a reputation on brilliant annual reports for its longtime clients Adris Group, a tobacco and tourism firm, and Podravka, the largest food brand in Southeast Europe. For the former, it created one that glows in the dark, another that weighs a lot more than it looks and more recently, one whose pages change color and reveal more details when touched. A report it created in 2005 for Podravka could not be read until you baked it in the oven. "The reports brought these companies a lot of free publicity, locally and worldwide," said Bruketa & Zinic co-founder Davor Bruketa. "One of their goals is to affect the company's public image. You can do that if the public hears about you."

"The annual report should not only be a bunch of facts and numbers, but it should also portray what a certain company is all about -- what it believes in, what it wants to communicate to its target audience, and, of course, what it wants to accomplish," added B&Z co-founder Nikola Zinic. And it shouldn't just be creativity for creativity's sake. "Ideas are like pants -- everybody has [some]. The important question is, are the ideas smart and effective on the market?"

In the U.S., socially savvy online eyewear retailer Warby Parker has used its yearly looks-back as a means to connect with its consumers and convey its mantra of quirkiness and transparency. "We want to be known as more than a company that sells glasses, and we want to be accessible to our customers," said Director-Online Experience Tim Riley. In 2011 it put out its first annual report online for 2010, filled with fun facts and cool infographics. For 2012, it presented an interactive take on a color wheel, showing more than you need to know about Warby Parker's culture and staff (one person said he had "held Michael Jackson's baby, Blanket, in my arms.").

The first year was an experiment and "we designed it to be very story-like and didn't know what was going to happen," said Mr. Riley. "People started passing it around and it was heavily trafficked." But other than just impressions, the report yielded substantial business. "It generated our three highest consecutive sale days to date at that time," he said. "And this was in mid-January, when retail isn't necessarily at its hottest."

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